Lessons in palace intrigue

On stage: A performance of Raakshasa Tangadi

On stage: A performance of Raakshasa Tangadi  

Girish Karnad’s last play is an attempt to understand how the kingdom of Vijayanagara collapsed after a single battle

A theatre company from Bengaluru brings to Mumbai a sumptuous staging of Girish Karnad’s final opus, Crossing to Talikota. The play was first published in Kannada as Raakshasa Tangadi by publishers Total Kannada in 2018, and has seen multiple productions in Kannada since. The Oxford edition in English, translated by the playwright himself, was released in May last year, less than two weeks before his passing. In his preface, Karnad wrote of Arjun Sajnani’s planned world premiere of the play, taking pride on the collaborators who had come on board, signing off, “What more can a playwright ask for?”

In October last year, on Gandhi Jayanti, Sight and Sound Performing Arts flagged off the opening run of their production of Crossing to Talikota at Bengaluru’s Chowdiah Memorial Hall. Sajnani had earlier directed Karnad classics like Bali, Tughlaq and The Fire and the Rain, which he adapted for the big screen in 2002 as Agni Varsha, featuring Amitabh Bachchan as Indra. This final stab at a Karnad play is thus both a homecoming and a homage for the director. The play’s awaited Mumbai run comes at the heels of it being staged in Pune, at the Saarang Theatre Festival, in February.

Historical lessons

Set in 1565, the play deals with the downfall of the empire of Vijayanagara, as battalions of four Deccan sultanates tear away at its flanks. The blurb of the English edition reads, “The political contours of southern India [were] radically altered, [with] the rich and prosperous Vijayanagara, plundered, decimated, and abandoned. It would lie uninhabited for centuries, known thereafter only as ‘the ruins of Hampi’.” More than battleground set-pieces, the play focuses on political intrigues. At its centre is Vijayanagara statesman Aliya Ramaraya, who was not of royal blood, but was still the “absolute ruler of the empire without being accepted as its head.” Karnad was awakened to the “tragic dimensions of this exceptional figure” by the writings of Kirtinath Kurtkoti and Richard M Eaton.

The conflict of Talikota is often tarred with a communal brush by historians — Karnad makes it about a hunger for power, Ramaraya’s blind hubris, and geo-political strategy on the part of the Deccan sultans, a confederacy led by Ali Adil Shah I of Bijapur. In his preface, Karnad speaks of three events that stand out in the history of the Deccan in the past millennium. Of these, he has already written Tale-danda on the Lingayat revolution, and The Dreams of Tipu Sultan on the King of Mysore’s last standoff against the British. Crossing to Talikota was his attempt to understand the third — how Vijayanagara, “despite being one of the most powerful military edifices of its age, collapsed overnight after a single battle.”

Grand spectacle

Sajnani forgrounds his play against an impressive backdrop of vertical panels, on which opulent motifs — palace interiors, the ramparts of old forts, war formations — are projected. The design by Arun Sagar is part of a trend of Indian stage spectacles being reliant on sweeping digital panoramas that in many cases, where taste meets function by providence, allows the use of minimalist mise en scène without losing out on an immersive grandeur that is almost cinematic (although the results have often been hit-and-miss on the Mumbai stage).

The cast of thirty-odd actors includes Ashok Mandanna as Ramaraya, already an octogenarian at the time of the play’s events, Shashank Purushotham as the Sultan of Bijapur, and Viveck Jayant Shah (returning to the stage after a 14-year hiatus) as Hussain Nizam Shah, the Sultan of Ahmadnagar. It would be interesting to see whether the representation of Muslim characters in this play ‘others’ them in the manner historical epics (on screen, at least) have been doing of late. Karnad’s own middle-of-the-road approach in delineating the ethos of the play’s settings relies on a balance of rendition that does not kow-tow to a ‘them and us’ narrative.

Crossing to Talikota from March 13-15 at Jamshed Bhabha Theatre, NCPA; see for more details

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Printable version | Mar 31, 2020 6:56:49 PM |

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